power, corruption, and lies

There’s a lot of confusion as to how Power, Corruption, and Lies should fit into the New Order/Joy Division canon.  Robert Christgau calls it a “Joy Division II” album, basically a gentler, prettier version of what they’d always done up to that point.  Contra John Bush at AllMusic, who says that the brightened sound and dance-oriented songwriting was exactly what made the album such a leap forward. But like a good number of critics, perhaps unduly biased by the massiveness of “Blue Monday”, I think Bush overstates the case for the album as an early dance-rock artifact. And in that respect he is actually similar to Christgau, who locates the “ambient postindustrial polyrhythms” as the albums center.

But the finest New Order album revolves around three tracks: the opener, “Age of Consent”, plus “The Village” and “Your Silent Face.” Starting with “Age of Consent” demonstrates that whatever electronic interventions are to follow, this a fundamentally human affair. The synthesizers do minimal work, making a fine melodic counterpoint in the choruses, but leaving most of the work to Sumner’s jangly guitar playing and Hook’s rolling bass line. But what makes that track, and the similarly keening “Village” special is Sumner’s vocals, foregrounded and fragile as they hadn’t been before and wouldn’t be again. The two tracks signal a break from Joy Division’s clinical anxiety, but instead of veering for the dance-rock sound that would dominate on later releases, they showcase New Order as brilliant alt-pop romantics.

And then there’s “Your Silent Face”, the most gorgeous tune the group ever composed. Here, the synths do take center, but they aren’t made to dance floor specifications (and the drum machine hardly announces it presence). Rather, I’d apply two words rarely associated with the synthesizer: stately and organic. The melody practically swells out of the speakers, beginning as a magnificent backdrop to Sumner’s musings, but ultimately claiming the song by the power of its uninhibited melodramatic sweep. Sumner sounds vulnerable when the song begins, but next to the majestic synth chords his words, alternately sad and angry, are crushed – overwhelmed by emotions inexpressible in words, the duty of which then falls to the machine.

Power, Corruption, and Lies, then, is singular in the group’s catalog because it is their greatest pop album. It’s best moments are triumphs of songcraft, and of vulnerable human performance.

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~ by staticandme on March 21, 2009.

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